Claire Price shows her teacher Cathy Chaffman her drawing of her favorite store during preschool class at Whitley County Central Primary School Sept. 21, 2010. The class had just started a three-week unit on stores. Photo by Amy Wallot

Claire Price shows her teacher Cathy Chaffman her drawing of her favorite store during preschool class at Whitley County Central Primary School Sept. 21, 2010. The class had just started a three-week unit on stores. Photo by Amy Wallot

By Susan Riddell

In 1989, the Whitley County school district was dealing with a high failure rate and was placed under state management assistance. Then-superintendent Lonnie Anderson saw past the higher grade levels experiencing the failures and chose to focus on reaching out to students entering preschool.

More than two decades later, that plan has clearly paid off as failure rates have plummeted and preschools are thriving in the small eastern Kentucky district.

“Investing in preschool education and getting kids off to a right start is one of the best investments possible,” said Sulia Douglas, an early childhood education liaison for the Whitley County school district. “By offering preschool, children from a low socio-economic background are less likely to start out at a disadvantage. Statistics show that students who enter high school and cannot read on grade level are more likely to have trouble in all academic areas and less likely to graduate.

“For some students, high school is too late to motivate them because they have had so few successes prior to that,” Douglas added. “Children who start out in a high-quality preschool where they are given many opportunities to be successful are much more likely to not only graduate high school but also attend college and be productive citizens.”

In 1990, the district’s annual dropout rate was slightly higher than 6.8 percent, meaning more than 25 percent of the freshmen didn’t receive diplomas. In 2008, the district’s dropout rate was 0.84 percent. Of the 25 dropouts that year, just two were involved in the district’s pre-K program as youngsters.

“The Whitley County preschool program has a number of attributes that include research-based curriculum, a fully-blended program with Head Start and 20 classrooms that are housed in the elementary schools and are an integral part of the school community,” Douglas said. “Classes are available for all 3- and 4-year-olds who meet eligibility requirements.”

“It is a wonderful program that prepares young children to be ready to start kindergarten,” said Oak Grove Elementary School preschool teacher Unis Broyles, who is a 43-year veteran in the classroom.

“The main goal is to prepare the child for kindergarten in all areas such as cognitive, emotional, physical and language,” Broyles added. “Students know letters, letter sounds, numbers and rhyming words, and they can write their first and last names. Teaching preschool is such a rewarding experience. Young children are like sponges, and they will absorb whatever you expose them to.”

Preschoolers sign in each morning before lesson time begins.

“As part of our morning routine, as students arrive, they put away their backpacks then sit at the table where each has a notebook in which they sign in,” said Whitley County Central Primary preschool teacher Cathy Chaffman. “They write their first names, and as they progress, they write their first and last names. Eventually the students will write their first, middle and last names.

“This activity helps the student connect to real-life skills by watching their parents sign in and then being asked to do the same,” Chaffman added. “This gives the students a context for the learning activity. They are able to learn responsibility and daily routines as well as using their fine motor skills. They are learning how to hold a pencil correctly using their thumb and fingers. The students are able to see and understand that writing is purposeful.”

Since 2005, all Whitley County preschools have been using Building Language for Literacy (BLL) curriculum.

Building Language for Literacy is “a research-based curriculum, and it offers professional development embedded within the curriculum,” Chaffman said. “It has opened the door to many opportunities for our children to learn and succeed in school. This curriculum is designed to prepare our little ones for reading success in the future.”

Chaffman said children are exposed to books, songs, poems and writing activities that help them develop their knowledge base within four main domains: phonological awareness, letter knowledge, and concepts of print and oral language.

“In each preschool classroom, children explore, experiment and master the beginnings of literacy, numeracy and science,” Douglas added. “All this happens as children talk and play with each other. Oral and written language dominates the preschoolers’ day. Children talk to each other or to the teacher, listen to directions, respond to questions and attend to the book she shares with them.”

Chaffman and Broyles both credit the preschools being aligned throughout the district and in schools five days a week with providing the children with the stability needed to keep learning at a constant.

“Five days a week ensures the child is always in a learning environment,” Broyles said.

“Being in a rural community, we have a lot of children who transfer back and forth between the elementary schools,” Chaffman added. “Having a preschool curriculum that aligns with each school ensures that those students who transfer schools will be familiar with the unit.”

Chaffman said all Whitley County preschools have a high-quality program that focuses on the whole student and the skills needed to succeed in kindergarten and beyond.

“The main goal for our children would be to have them ready to make the transition into kindergarten by establishing a strong foundation in early literacy development,” Chaffman said.

“By preparing students and exposing them to as much literacy as possible, we provide them with the necessary foundation for future reading success.

“We operate our preschool program with the belief that all children can learn,” Chaffman added. “Through partnerships between parents, communities and educators, our students will acquire the essential skills necessary to become productive citizens.”

Sulia Douglas,, (606) 549-7001, ext.4404
Unis Broyles,, (606) 549-7867
Cathy Chaffman,, (606) 549-7060